The Interview
Roger Klug

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Roger Klug's "Mama, Mama Ich Bin In Dem La La Land" was one of the top flight albums released last year.  Put out on his own "Mental Giant" label, it's a blistering, joyful, guitar-driven frenzy of masterful playing (all by the man himself), addictive melodies, and smart lyrics.   The sheer exuberance oozing from each of the seventeen tracks speaks volumes for the energy and commitment of the man to his unique take on pop-based music.  Over the tangled melody lines and breathless production blazes Klug's brilliant oxidising guitar work.  With news leaking out that a new album is close to completion, entitled "Toxic and Fifteen Other Love Songs", the moment seemed right to track down the Klugmeister to his Cincinnati base and talk about all that has been happening in the land of La La.

Is "Mama Mama..." the only album you've released?
It's the only thing I've officially put out since I went solo.  I was in a band called The Willies in the early 'nineties and we had two independent releases, "The Willies" and "Calm Cool Collected" on Mental Giant. They were cassette-only but they sold really well; I still like 'em a lot.  They're virtually impossible to find now.  I'm always putting out albums for my friends though.  They make great gifts and your friends will always listen to you even when no one else will.

What were your earliest musical influences?
This is very unhip and banal to say, but the Beatles were the ones who made me want to play music.  Before that I would raid my parents' record collection and listen to Herb Alpert, Dave Brubeck and Ramsey Lewis, plus things like The Nutcracker Suite and Ravel's Bolero.  Then the Beatles came along and I was hooked.  Those guys, for me, still represent the standard; their melodies, their production, their ideas.  I rarely listen to them now, there's no need to... it's ingrained.  I was a total Anglophile; you would have laughed at the phony accents I used to cop.  Anything British was cool.  Liked the Who, loved the Kinks, the Hollies, the Zombies.  Then all those guitar players: Page, Beck, Alvin Lee, not so much Clapton; Beck was always the coolest.  I bought a black Gibson Les Paul -- the one I still play -- 'cos Beck's holding one on the cover of "Blow By Blow" -- later I realised on the recording he was using a Fender Strat!  But Gibsons back then were the creme de la creme, kind of how it is now, actually.  So I had an adolescent penchant for guitar shredding, but still loved all the pop stuff.  I was into Sweet, Queen, 10cc, ELO, and the Move -- I think Roy Wood is the Alex Chilton of England -- then later the Police, the Pretenders, Costello, XTC -- "Drums and Wires" is probably still my favourite album from that era.  Popular music of the 'eighties didn't hold much interest for me, so I guess that's when I really got into American songwriters; people like Hoagy Carmichael and Cole Porter, lots of jazz and Bob Dylan -- I rediscovered him with a vengeance -- Randy Newman, Tom Waits...I like everybody, just some more than others.

Let's talk about your previous band The Willies.
It was pretty crazy trying to play live as a two-piece band, which was for about half of our existence.  We were really picky about bassists and they would inevitably let us down, or have nervous breakdowns trying to play the stuff 'cos it was too complex for them.  So for two years Jeff Karch and I played to a bass track on a Portastudio that we carried around from gig to gig and just plugged it into a bass amp.  It sounded great but people would freak out and eventually get suspicious that all this music was being made by just two guys.  I always liked the name The Willies, referring to feelings of nervousness, 'cos there was a lot of anxiety in the music; sort of melodic and poppy on the surface, with deep dark sludge just beneath.  Of course, someone pointed out that it was British slang for "penis" as well.  It turned out there was at least one other band doing business as the Willies and it became a nightmare dealing with clubs, record companies, etc., 'cos they'd have you confused with someone else.  By that time we were too worn out by our bassists to even worry about it; the thing just kind of imploded.  We never even knew we'd broken up 'til we were living in different cities!  It never fails -- you'd run into somebody a year later and they'd say "What happened to you guys!  I loved your stuff!  You should get back together!" and you're thinking "Where were you when we needed you; playing to fifteen people at Sudsy Malone's Rock and Roll Bar and Laundromat!" 

What do you call the kind of music you play?
I hate labels, they mean nothing.  But to be marketable you have to coin a phrase for it.  So I call what I do "hard pop."  It has a nice ring to it.   If you're a jazz fan you think of "hard bop" and not far off is "hard rock," if you remember that tag from the seventies.  The "hard rock" label was, of course, made obsolete by the cryptic and much-abused "alternative" label.  Incidentally, I told a publisher in 1991 that I was "alternative" and he advised me never to use that word; "It means you don't sell records and you don't get played on the radio," he said to me.  So tell all your young readers that's what "alternative" used to mean.

Do you perform live?
yes, when I can.  Right now, the show is just me and my guitar, kind of a Jonathan Richman-y sort of presentation, a one man rock and roll show.

What type of feedback have you had from "La La Land?"
Well, it's a slow road to world domination.  The reviews here in the local Cincinnati mags have been very positive, and the people at the gigs seem to really enjoy it.   When somebody comes up and says how much they love this song or that song or what it means to them and they're quoting lyrics back to you, it's a little embarrassing but ultimately it's what you crave as an artist, that communication.  When I was mastering "Mama Mama" the disc plant said it was too long (over 74 minutes) and I had to axe a song.  I just couldn't do it.  It was like picking one child out of a classroom and saying "You can't go on the field trip with the other kids."  It broke my heart, so what I did was go through and cut four bars here, two seconds of dead space there, tore a bridge out of one song, and finally they all fit!  I always liked albums that you could get lost in, like you could go back each time and find something new, or something you forgot.

How does the songwriting process go with you?
Well, it usually starts with an anxiety attack, or maybe a euphoria attack.   Songwriting is what I love the most, that's why I do this.  At the end of the day, songs are immortal.  When I'm writing the trick is to not think there's a process.  If I consciously sit down to write something, maybe one time in ten I'll get something worthwhile.  Usually songs come to me when I'm doing something else -- watching a band or a film, driving, raking the leaves -- boom!  I'll hear the record playing in my head and then it's just a matter of filling in the missing lyrics, which can take anywhere from ten minutes to ten years!  One song on the forthcoming CD I wrote in a New York theatre watching "Miss Saigon;" my mind must have been wandering!   Another one came to me driving home on the freeway after a six hour session recording a jingle for a shopping mall.  I got home, went to the piano, and except for a few lyric changes, it was finished.

Any anecdotes on songs from "Mama Mama?"

  • I'd Love To Make You Change Your Mind: I was playing a gig and my eyes were arrested by this very beautiful young woman.  All the guys in the band were aware of her, when suddenly it became apparent she was being escorted by this older woman, perhaps in her fifties, they were holding hands, touching each other, dancing intimately, and it was like, "ah man, I've got enough competition without this."  So it's sort of a true story.  A very man/cock attitude, I suppose.
  • Shaken Not Stirred: I like songs that are deep and dark lyrically, but have a groove that makes you gyrate around the room.   This is one of them.
  • About Your Cat:  I never actually harmed anyone's cat, but if I ever do I will be well prepared with this tailor-made apology.  One of my novelty songs and one of the most requested live.
  • Our Friend Jess:  I always wanted to write a twelve minute song that was Cinemascopic in size, a long story that twisted and unraveled through dynamics and sounds and tempos, building and climaxing like a sexual act, but instead I wrote this!  I confess I was eavesdropping on two college girls and, yes, the heroine's name is Jess, she got mixed up with a "gangster," he's "married and he's thirty."  Everything else I made up.
  • You're Alright:  Another classic conceived in the car.  Judging by the listeners' response, the most likely candidate for a single.  The line "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that you're paranoid" is already being quoted by some upwardly-mobile types in Cleveland, Ohio.
  • Vibin':  And old Willies song, written in Bonnieville, Kentucky, on the way to open for the Bodeans in Nashville.  Our car had broken down in the middle of nowhere, and Jeff and I found ourselves in a towing garage that doubled as a hunting license bureau:  it just happened to be the first day of deer hunting season.  The place was packed and I'm panicking, thinking "we're never going to make this show" and our mechanic is swamped with these people saying things like, "yep!  I bet you got yours tied to a tree, jus' fattenin' it up, tee hee!"  A very surreal situation.  Incidentally, we did open the show and I performed the newly written opus; feeling like a musical reporter until I heard a lone voice in the crowd cry out "Bodeans" during my solo.
  • Takin' Up My Time:  This is about a business relationship, specifically a manager I was negotiating with.  We kept having these meetings about how he was going to own my name, my songs, my life and my gonads.   He wouldn't budge on the gonads so I walked.

Talk about your guitar playing.  It's brilliant don't you know!
Aw shucks!  I feel kind of strange about it, 'cos I definitely have a love/hate relationship with the guitar.  One minute it's the most natural form of expression, like I'm singing through it, and then I get strangled by its limitations, as well as my own.  There are a lot of whacked guitar players in Cincinnati, it must be in the drinking water.  I think I have an original guitar style in that I don't like to play cliches.  A lot of my licks are kind of different, I make 'em up as I go along.   I like weird chords too; that is, "weird" to popular music nowadays.   It's no mystery really, to be happy with my playing I just need to do it, or as Frank Zappa said, "shut up and play your guitar!"

Finally, let's talk about what's coming next.
Well, I started work on another album after "Mama Mama" was released, probably the dumbest marketing strategy ever, but I couldn't help it, I was still in the mood and bursting with songs!  The music is 98.6% recorded and mixed, but photos and artwork are way behind schedule.  Entitled "Toxic and Sixteen Other Love Songs," it's about love and everything that goes along with it it:  the euphoria, the neuroses, the angst, the delusion, the thrills, the chills, the spills!  Sticky territory, I know, but before you start thinking "oh no has he gone MOR with Mantovani and the 101 strings" guess again, 'cos it's still the same whacked hard-pop stuff in the vein of "Mama Mama."  Expect a flowery spring release just in time for rushing hormones and pollen allergies.

That's about it, except to say "La La Land" can be obtained from Minus Zero Records and Roger can be contacted by e-mail: or by post at Mental Giant Music, P.O. Box 9400, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA, 45209.  Thanks to him and to the ever wonderful Sophie Turner.

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